Missouri has been criticized for being among the states that have the weakest ethics laws. Generally speaking, corruption is difficult to find and most people do not believe folks are being bought and paid for by lobbyists. However, public perception says that changes are necessary. No one wants to hear news reports of how elected officials are being manipulated by lobbyists who are buying fancy dinners and are paying for trips to various out-of-state events. In dealing with ethics reform, I believe there are three main areas to be addressed: lobbyists’ gifts, the revolving door policy, and campaign finances.
Lobbyists’ gifts generally receive a good deal of attention. Reform legislation should prohibit lobbyists from giving gifts to any state or elected official, their families, or their staff members, and their gifts certainly should be banned from the entire General Assembly. In times past, lobbyists paid for committee hearings that took place out of the capitol building and that were sometimes held in country clubs or restaurants. They also paid for tickets to sporting events as well as catering for committee hearings and providing food for other occasions. Most of the food provided by lobbyists, both outside the capitol as well as in committee hearings, has been stopped.
Revolving door is the term used when a lawmaker leaves office and immediately joins a lobbying firm. This makes it too easy for those individuals to use their influence and lobby money to persuade remaining lawmakers. To help avoid this situation, proposed legislation would create up to a two-year cooling off period before a former lawmaker could become a lobbyist.
Campaign finance reform is slow to be included in any proposal and also has proven in times past to be the most controversial issue when trying to pass any type of reform. Missouri and five other states —Alabama, Nebraska, Oregon, Utah, and Virginia—currently have no limits on campaign finances. The other forty-four states do have some kind of limits, either on the individual candidates, the state’s political parties, the political action committees (PACs), or on contributions from corporations or labor unions. With the high costs required to run a campaign no one really wants to deal with campaign finance reform, but there have been proposals seeking to limit the amount of campaign gifts that can be given, depending on the office being sought. Every person who runs for or is elected to office is required to have and file an ethics report with the Missouri Ethics Commission.
Other possible considerations for ethics reform could include such things as requiring lobbyists to report all the individuals or organizations they represent in order to eliminate the practice of hiring subcontractors to conceal who the lobbyists really work for and requiring stricter reporting of elected officials’ travel expenses on their personal finance disclosures, in order to show greater overall transparency.
Most Missouri lawmakers are conscientious in their use of taxpayer resources, yet some see the taking of lobbyists’ gifts as acceptable and an added perk to help offset some of what they may give up when taking the elected job at a lower salary than what would be possible outside of their public office. Others view the practice as unacceptable. The idea of lobbyists giving gifts to elected officials is frequently a distasteful one to voters and can be viewed as a process in which that elected official may have stronger leanings toward the gift giver than to the voter. Likewise, some of the same feelings may be present when former lawmakers immediately move into the position of lobbyist following their leaving of office. The potential is there for those former lawmakers to use their connections, knowledge, and influence to sway legislators their direction.
It is hoped that the proposed legislation on ethics reform will alleviate any present problems and prevent future problems of this nature, thus helping to restore transparency and increase public trust in all those who serve our state’s citizens.